September 07, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations:
If you are busy, you must be faithful. In the United States at least, being a kind of holy blur of activity in the church is seen as a key mark of Christian commitment.
Busy = Faithful.
Woe betide the congregation whose list of support groups, youth opportunities, small groups, and service-oriented ministries is small or paltry looking. In fact, years ago I attended a church leadership conference at which a good many of the guest speakers were pastors who wore their churches’ incredible buffet of ministry activities as clear badges of honor.
So maybe it’s fitting that this Lectionary text, appointed for one of the first Sundays in September (which for some churches at least is the start of the “busy” new church season) calls us up short a bit and aims to re-set our thinking and maybe even our priorities. Because sometimes in our busy efforts to make the church seem active and alive and vibrant and “with it” as it bristles with programs for all ages, maybe we are tempted to forget that what the entire church is about is a kind of living death. The church is called to—and is commissioned to call others to—a way of being, a way of life, that is rather countercultural.
The world says “Look out for good old #1!” The gospel says, “Take care of others first, even if it means losing yourself.” The world says, “You only go around once—grab the gusto!” The gospel says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow the crucified one.” The world says, “Feather your own nest!” The gospel says, “If you gain the whole world but lose your soul, what in the world could you use to buy your soul back?”
In the church, it’s not wrong to provide pastoral care and advice. Of course not! It’s not wrong to offer people assistance and counseling through church programs designed to help people cope with real life. But sometimes in an effort to look relevant and “with it” and up to speed on the latest trends of society, do we in the church now and then forget that the gospel is not finally about self-betterment or self-improvement or providing tips for how to get along better in life? Based on some church signs I’ve seen, some sermon titles I’ve spied in the newspaper, and some popular religious TV shows and websites, one has cause to wonder.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that if all you aim for is this earthly life, hoping maybe to somehow get heaven thrown in, you may in the end discover that you’ve neither saved your life on earth nor managed to take account of heaven. But if you aim at heaven first and foremost–at what God wants and at how God designed life to be lived–then you may discover that by taking account of heaven’s perspective first of all, you get a better life on earth thrown in, too. But are we tempted now and then to tell people that our first priority is to help them get along better in life and use this as the lure to then tell them about the gospel? Do we start with earth and try to back people into heaven?
At the end of Mark 8 Jesus issues a bit of a warning. If anyone is ashamed of him or his words today, then Jesus just might be ashamed of that person at the end of days, too. We’re well aware of that verse but do we always ponder what it means? What happens when we are ashamed of someone? What goes into that feeling and to what behaviors does it lead a person?
We put daylight between ourselves and the other person in the hopes of saving our own skin, our own reputation, our own standing in the eyes of others. When we are ashamed of someone, it’s because our attention is focused 100% on ourselves and so we will do anything, say anything, deny anything to prop ourselves up, even if that means someone else needs to be injured, diminished, put down.
Being ashamed of Jesus and his words means that when he tells people that the secret to life is giving that life away, we take a few steps away from Jesus. We find ways to explain away what he said. We find ways to tell people what Jesus REALLY meant, and it was not that you actually have to live sacrificially he meant . . . be nice. Be kind. Work hard. Seize God’s better dream for your future!
In a day when people look to the church to help them grow their business, raise successful children, secure their financial future, and even have a more fulfilling sex life in marriage, do we have the courage to stand up and admit that following Jesus will not guarantee any of those things? As we try to attract people through our sparkling lineup of programs, can we admit that following Jesus involves suffering, setbacks, and a focus on our neighbors first of all that may well prove to be the death of the “Me and Mine First” attitude so pervasive in society today?
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Was Peter worried about his master and friend, Jesus, or more worried about himself when he took it upon himself to rebuke Jesus for predicting upcoming suffering and death? That is, did Peter worry that if such-and-such happened to Jesus, it could happen to also him? Or was he being sheerly altruistic here in wanting to protect someone he loved from harm? If your best friend says, “Well, mom and dad died horrible deaths from cancer and so I’m sure that I’m next,” you may respond by chiding him out of sheer love. “Charlie, don’t talk that way! God forbid you should get cancer, too!” In that case, you’re thinking mostly about your friend. True, you’re thinking about yourself a bit, too, and your desire to not lose your friend to disease and death but mainly you are zeroed in on Charlie.
It’s possible to read Peter’s rebuke of Jesus that way. Peter loved his friend and as such didn’t want to see him get hurt. He meant well. But as it happened, his words could be exploited by Satan himself to tempt Jesus to go another way.
Whether that is the whole of it, probably that is at least part of it, and we sometimes miss this angle on Peter’s rebuke due to our focus on larger issues having to do with the meaning of being the Messiah, the Christ of God. But to be fair to Peter, we need to acknowledge that good old fashioned love is at least part of what motivated Peter to say what he did.
But in this case, Peter did have something more in mind, too, and in the long run, that “something more” did have a lot to do with what Peter was hoping for in his own life. After all, the disciples were sensing—and had been for a while now—that Jesus was up to something pretty big. If Peter was a reflection of the other disciples, then they had collectively concluded—or started to conclude at least—that Jesus was no less than the long-promised Messiah of God, the Anointed One, the Chosen One, the Christ who would make all things new. That’s no small thing to suspect of someone! And it carries with it some expectations that are a little on the galactic side.
So when Peter rebuked Jesus for his grim talk about suffering and death, he was no doubt keeping his friend’s best interests in mind—no one wants to hear a loved one say dark and brooding things. But he was thinking of himself, too. As the master’s fortunes went, so would go the fortunes of his followers. If Jesus went down the tubes, their dreams would go with him (and in the worst case scenario, they’d go down the tubes with him, too!).
Of course, Jesus knows that going down the tubes is the Gospel’s “downward way up” in the long run and if only Peter and company could stick with him long enough, they’d come to learn that blessed, albeit counterintuitive, truth. And it is the same for us in the church today, too. We stick with Jesus. We go where he leads and do not forever try to beckon him down the path we’d prefer. This may not be an easy thing to call people to today in such an upwardly mobile society of strivers and achievers, but it is the Gospel.
And that’s what we preach.
There is a curious feature to the Greek language of verses 33 and 34 that a reader is all-but certain to miss in most any translation of the text. Because in both verses—in nearly back-to-back sentences, in fact—Jesus uses the prepositional phrase opiso mou which means “behind me.” In verse 33 he tells Peter that he has unwittingly become a spokesperson for Satan and so had to get opiso mou so as not to hinder Jesus’ forward movement. But then in the next verse Jesus says that if anyone wants to get opiso mou, he had to take up his cross, etc. The second instance of the preposition opiso may be a bit gratuitous: the verb “to follow” implies being behind the person you’re following without your having to note it specifically. But perhaps Mark includes the phrase also the second time to make a point: in the long run, everyone gets in line behind Jesus. He is the Cosmic Christ, the Creator, the firstborn from among the dead. No one will ever get out in front of Jesus. As King of kings and Lord of lords, he is the preminent one. The only question is if you will be behind Jesus as a willing follower or if you will be back there because you got consigned there as a mini-Satan intent on tripping Jesus up. One way of being back there paradoxically leads to life. The other way of being back there may just mean that not only are you behind Jesus for now, but that you may eventually be left behind, too.
Some while back I watched an episode of the classic TV show “The Waltons” in which the oldest son, John Boy, attends his first day of classes as a university student. John Boy was raised in a poor family that lived in a very rural area of Virginia. Across the years of the TV show, we viewers came to love and cherish the whole Walton clan, thereby forgetting that were we to encounter people who dressed like them, spoke like them, and lived like them in most any venue of our ordinary lives, we would probably view them as hillbilly types, as hicks and rubes. But in the episode where John Boy starts his university education, we are reminded of this as we see the ways by which John Boy seeks to fit in with his more sophisticated classmates. First of all, he drops the “Boy” part of his name—he’s just “John Walton, Jr.” now, not “John Boy Walton” as everyone at home calls him. He also tries to drop phrases like “I reckon” and “pert near” from his speech even as he has traded in his usual country attire for a new suit with a bow tie.
But as fate would have, John had left behind a piece of paper he needed to get properly registered for his Fall classes and so his father has to bring it to him. As Pa Walton pulls up to the university campus, we see him driving his ramshackle old clunker of a pickup truck that sputters and pops as it runs. Pa is wearing a straw hat, a dingy plaid shirt, and a pair of jeans (held up with suspenders) that had seen better days. Just to help set the scene, the music soundtrack plays some twangy banjo music. So as Pa Walton pulls up, we see him through the eyes of John’s sophisticated classmates who roll their eyes and turn up their noses at the old hillbilly coming down the street in his sad old pickup truck.
Since John Boy / John Jr. has spent his day trying to fit in with his more urbane new classmates, there is a moment when you wonder whether he will acknowledge that this is his daddy coming down the street or if he will make up some story, tell some lie, or engage in some behavior by which to deny any connection with this man whom the others were already chalking up as some loser of a backward hick. As it turns out, John freely acknowledges his father and takes whatever lumps to his status his classmates may wish to dole out. (You didn’t expect less of John Boy now, did you?)
But it’s not difficult to imagine what might have happened had John Boy been a less loving and loyal son of his simple father. Had he been ashamed of his father, he would have denied knowing him. Or maybe he would admit to knowing him but then might have treated his father badly, acting superior to him even as he tells his father to get lost, to get out of sight as quickly as possible before he causes him any further embarrassment. He could have pretended not to see him. He could have ducked away before eye contact was made.
The point is that when we are ashamed of someone, we may deny really knowing him. Or we treat him shabbily. Or we take an eye-rolling posture over against him. In and through it all, our being ashamed means that we worry that our status in life, what other people will think of us, will get diminished on account of the other person. And that, Jesus tells us in Mark 8, just can never be so of us vis-à-vis the Father, the Son, or the holy Gospel.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations:
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus Socrates tells an ancient Egyptian legend about a king named Thamus and a god named Theuth. Theuth, it seems, was an inventor of great tools and new technologies. One day he showed King Thamus a vast array of his inventions, climaxing with his most recent innovation: writing. The inventor proudly told Thamus, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord and king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians.” The king, however, felt it would have the opposite effect.
“Those who acquire this skill of writing,” King Thamus said, “will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.”
It could be alleged that just such a conceit of wisdom is very much present today, and it is indeed a burden to society. The ability to Google anything—or look up facts quickly on Wikipedia—is not the same thing as having a well-rounded education, much less knowing how to use knowledge in wise ways.
Wisdom is the knack for getting along well in life’s many and varied situations. The Book of Proverbs runs the gamut of life situations because wisdom itself surveys the whole of life in order to figure out patterns of wholeness, to see what works and what doesn’t. The wise one observes these patterns and then fits him- or herself into the larger picture of reality. As Proverbs 1:7 claims, the foundational reason why wisdom can be fruitfully pursued is “the fear of the Lord.” Only our core belief in the reliability of God’s orderly universe can encourage us to make coherent sense out of life. If the “jigsaw” pieces of life in a fragmented world did not all come from a single picture in the first place, then there would be no sense in trying to put those pieces back together.
Hence the wise learn to pay close attention to life. The wise pay close attention to what works and what flops in life as a key avenue for gaining wisdom. As the balance of Proverbs 1 makes clear, however, a main artery through which wisdom comes to a person is receiving instruction from older and wiser people. Throughout especially the early chapters of the Book of Proverbs we read a lot of parental lectures. A certain “son” is being addressed by his father and is being cajoled over and over again to accept the advice his parents are doling out. The first nine chapters are loaded with warnings, reproaches, admonitions, and commands. But what underlies it all is the vital need for the son to be willing to take what his father is dishing out. When wisdom calls, we have to listen.
In verses 20-33 Wisdom herself speaks in a striking personification of divine reality. But what Wisdom has to say is not always pleasant. In fact, those verses contain the Old Testament’s single biggest concentration of the word “rebuke”! People who think they can re-invent reality every ten minutes do not take kindly to rebukes.
Fools, it is said, are often in error but never in doubt.
A rebuke is designed to create a guilty conscience in a person in the hopes of helping that person come to a better understanding of why what he did was wrong and how things could go better the next time. “What you did was wrong! You said something that was very hurtful! You should not have done it that way.” Those are examples of rebukes, and yet today your uttering one such sentence out in society would be labeled insensitive, intolerant, judgmental, and parochial.
Such a negative attitude toward your attempt to educate people morally in the art of living wisely will be all-the-more ballyhooed if the primary authority to which you appeal is something traditional and old, much less something ancient (like the Bible). Some of the same impulses that make Americans prefer cohortative forms of speech over imperative forms likewise lead people to resist the notion that the past may well have much to teach us in this present moment as well as on into the future.
At least part of the reason for this disconnect from the past can be detected in that opening illustration about King Thamus. Unlike the inventor who thought that the new tool of writing would make people smarter and wiser, the king was sure it would make them dumber, lazier, less educated. If you can look it up in a book, you don’t need to carry it around in your head. Have you ever heard a young person who is poor at spelling tell you not to worry because before he hands his essay in to his teacher he’ll run it through his computer’s spell checker? The computer can spell, so the student doesn’t have to. As King Thamus said, new technology can give people the appearance of wisdom without its reality–or in this case the appearance of being a good speller without its lexical reality!
As Neil Postman so well pointed out, new technologies have always had the tendency of conferring on the masters of that technology the appearance of an intelligence and wisdom they may not actually possess. That is especially true in this so-called “Information Age.” Those who control the technologies which manage our information, particularly computers, are assumed to be wise. So Bill Gates invents a better computer program which sells spectacularly well, and suddenly people assume he is wise enough to write a book which he entitled The Road Ahead. Because his programs make reams of information available to us via the Internet and World Wide Web, it is assumed he himself must be some font of information and advice worth listening to.
The same happens with any successful person in our media-driven age. Why do actors and actresses so regularly get asked to testify before Congress? They spend their lives reading lines written by other people but because they do that so well before the camera, we assume they will be wise when they are unscripted, too. Rich people (no matter how it was they made their millions) suddenly think they can make pronouncements on all sorts of aspects of life—some even think their money means they are qualified to be President of the United States.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere today. Real wisdom is rare. The conceit of wisdom without the reality of wisdom is perhaps nowhere better detected than in our society’s abhorrence of moral rebukes. But the truly wise, though no more enjoying getting rebuked than anyone else, accept reproof and redirection and are, in the long run, glad for it. It adds to their wisdom. But a society characterized by the modern, decidedly unbiblical proverb “Different strokes for different folks” has no patience for rebuke.
But such are the confusions of our society, ostensibly awash in a glut of knowledge and information. People good at accessing information on the Internet confuse being able to look something up with being smart to begin with (worse, they confuse the speed with which they can look it up with having the kind of intelligence which is able quickly to cut to the heart of the matter in wise discernment). As Neil Postman also points out, today we love to quantify everything, assign stuff a number which, since it’s scientific and all, supposedly can tell you a lot about a person. So we float on a sea of numbers: SAT scores, I.Q. ratios, sensitivity scales, GPAs, GRE scores, and personality inventory results. But, as Postman says, that kind of talk would have sounded like gibberish to most of the wisest people who lived before the nineteenth century. Those numbers reveal very little about a person’s wisdom.
Ultimately, there is in and through all of this a disdain for the past. People increasingly have the tendency to believe that unless someone is cyber-savvy and computer literate, they are out of touch, outdated, out of the loop. In some corners of society today people would not bat an eye if you told them you and your wife had an “open marriage” wherein each spouse is free to have sex with other people. But tell someone you don’t have email and they’ll look at you like you had a cow’s horn growing out of your head.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere. But as people who claim Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, as Lord, we cannot let ourselves settle for wisdom’s facade–we need its reality and its substantive inner depths.
The proper fear of our Lord demands nothing less.
[Here is an idea you could do in a sermon with a kind of call-and-response from the congregation.]
Suppose that about 3,000 or so years ago you had been a student at some Ancient Near Eastern school of wisdom. It is believed that just such schools existed, particularly in Egypt and possibly also in Israel. The teachers in these schools were renowned sages: wise guys whose speech dripped with proverbs, adages, axioms, aphorisms, maxims, and bywords. The students were young men whose job it was to learn at the feet of these older and wiser teachers. But if you were a student in such a school, what do you suppose the final exam would look like? No one is certain, of course, but a number of scholars have found evidence that exams in such schools involved the teacher throwing out the first half of a proverb with the student then being required to complete the wise saying.
Even today probably most of you could do pretty well on such a test. For instance, let me toss out for you the first part of some proverbs and then you respond by finishing the line—just say it out loud.
“Spare the rod . . . spoil the child.”
“When the going gets tough . . . the tough get going.”
“What goes up . . . must come down.”
“A fool and his money . . . are soon parted.”
“If you give him an inch . . . he’ll take half a mile.”
“The grass is always greener . . . on the other side of the fence.”
“With friends like that . . . who needs enemies.”
“People who live in glass houses . . . should not throw stones.”
Those of us who have been around in life know these saying well. Proverbs, someone once said, are easy to say but hard to forget. At least that is the case for reasonably healthy individuals. Indeed, that last proverb I just mentioned about people who live in glass houses is very often used by psychiatrists when they are evaluating the cognitive status of a mentally ill person. Sometimes the patient is asked to complete the proverb and other times the entire proverb is given out by the doctor, who in turn asks the patient if he or she can explain what that saying means. Curiously enough, very confused or disturbed people cannot complete the proverb or come anywhere close to explaining its meaning.
Even today, then, we live off the font of proverbs and proverbial wisdom perhaps more than we know!
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
C.S. Lewis once called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” So it’s no wonder that lyricists have set a number of beautiful interpretations of it, including “The Heavens Declare Your Glory” and “God’s Glory Fills the Heavens,” to music by famous composers such as J.S. Bach and Franz Haydn.
Rolf Jacobson suggests that the psalmist organizes Psalm 19’s hymn of praise around the central theme of “word” or speech.” In verses 1-6 it speaks of creation’s “words” of praise to God. The “heavens’” words, however, may be inaudible. While the NIV translates verse 3 to mean, “There is no speech or language where [the skies’] voice is not heard,” according to the NIV Study Bible it may also mean, “They have no speech, there are no words; no sound is heard from them.”
The psalmist insists God’s glory is visible in God’s handiwork that is the “heavens” and “skies.” The Reformed confession of faith that is the Belgic Confession makes a similar claim in Article 2 where it insists, “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures … are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity.”
Psalm 19’s poet asserts that creation somehow joins the worshiping congregation in praising its Creator and Sustainer. After all, what God creates isn’t itself divine, as parts of our culture insist. Instead, things like the “heavens” and “skies” merely point to the glory of the One who made them. The praise they offer is as unceasing as the rhythms of day and night. God’s creation praises the Lord on a daily basis throughout the day and night. That praise also extends across the whole world, just as the heavens and skies cover that world.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to look for ways to help people explore how to slow down enough to “listen” for that praise in a world that’s often far noisier than its skies. They might also want to ask if those heavens don’t actually make any audible noise, how do they declare God’s glory? Might we think of this a bit like the way we think of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings? After all, when one studies something like “Starry Night,” one can hardly help but notice and perhaps praise Van Gogh’s artistic genius. How much more, then, might God’s handiwork declare its maker’s praise?
Part of God’s handiwork that somehow declares God’s glory is the sun (4b). While some of the psalmist’s contemporaries thought of it as itself divine, the poet asserts that it’s merely one of God’s creatures. It’s certainly a creature that’s eager to do that for which God created it, giving off light and heat as the earth circles it. In fact, the psalmist compares the sun to a bridegroom who’s straining to leave his parents’ home for his wedding or a racehorse that’s chomping at the bit to race. The latter image recalls scenes of thoroughbreds racing in something like the Kentucky Derby, eagerly lunging forward toward the finish line.
Psalm 19’s verses 7-10 signal a noticeable shift. After all, the Hebrew name for God changes from el to Yahweh. The verses become poetry with what Jacobson calls “crisp and measured meter.” Most of all, however, they shift our attention from the creation that quietly, if not inaudibly declares God’s praise to Torah that very tangibly declares God’s glory. Verses 7-10’s six phrases have a similar structure. Each lists a synonym for God’s law, plus an adjective, plus a description of that law’s positive impact on those who gratefully observe it.
So in the second part of Psalm 19 a description of the creation’s inaudible words of praise to God morphs into a description of the concrete word of God as we find it in God’s law. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession mirrors that shift. After all, it insists that God “makes himself known to us more openly [than in creation] by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life for his glory and the salvation of his own.” In other words, while God’s creation declares God’s glory, God’s word declares that glory even more plainly.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to help people consider how the wider culture thinks about God’s law to which the psalm most specifically refers. Do people think of the commandments as a killjoy by which God tries to take away all freedom? Do they think of it as a kind of one-ton albatross that drags them down?
Psalm 19’s poet clearly doesn’t think of God’s law that way. One might say he thinks of it as more like an owner’s manual. After all, a car owner might think of that manual as something that restricts his freedom to use the car as he chooses. So he might choose to exercise his freedom by doing something basic like running the car without putting gasoline in its tank. However, the people who designed and made the car know what’s best for it. So the wise owner is the one who follows the owner’s manual’s instructions to periodically fill the car’s gas tank with gasoline.
Psalm 19’s author uses a number of synonyms for God’s “owners manual for people” that is God’s written revelation. However, no matter which synonym she uses, she always points to the positive benefits of obeying that law. Some of the imagery the poet uses is very vivid. In verse 7, for example, she insists God’s law revives our soul like a cold glass of water revives our drooping bodies and spirits on a hot summer day. In verse 8 she notes that God’s law makes even the simplest people who obey it wiser than members of the Mensa Society who ignore it. And in verse 10 the psalmist insists that God’s law is even more precious than two of God’s creation’s most valuable commodities: sweet honey and valuable gold.
Yet in verse 12 it’s as though while the psalmist knows all of this about God’s glorious creation and law, he recognizes that he has still disobeyed that law. It’s almost as though he recognizes that he has treated it like a worthless piece of junk. After all, knowledge of God’s perfect, trustworthy, right, sure and precious law isn’t enough all by itself to keep God’s sons and daughters faithful. We need God’s gracious forgiveness for sins of which we’re both aware and unaware. We also need the Holy Spirit to equip us to respond to God’s grace with thankful obedience. After all, as Jacobson notes, it’s not the law but the Lawgiver who graciously makes both God’s children and their prayers “pleasing” in God’s sight.
People have always considered gold to be one of the most precious and valuable minerals in the whole world. So the psalmist may have shocked his contemporaries when he insisted that God’s law is “more precious than gold.”
Yet in the last decade alone the price of gold in American dollars has risen almost 400%, from about $260.00 to nearly $1200. One analyst predicts the price of gold will jump as high as $2200.00. So how can we join the poet in asserting God’s law is “more precious than … much pure gold”?
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions
As I’ve said before, the Epistle of James aims to help “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1) conduct themselves in consistently Christian ways in a difficult and deceptive world. Rather than spelling out the Gospel, this letter simply assumes that its readers believe in and love Jesus Christ. Thus, it focuses on the words and deeds that should spring from faith and love. In our passage today, James turns from a powerful treatment of the way Christians should treat the rich and the poor (though he will return to that subject with a passion in chapter 5), and focuses on loving speech.
This section of James expands and expounds on those words of James 1:19 and 20, about being quick to listen and slow to speak. A passage like I Corinthians 14 illustrates the chaos that can erupt in a church setting when people are too quick to speak. It was a veritable Tower of Babel in the Corinthian church. But things get even worse when teachers and preachers have tongues that are out of control. In this section, James addresses them/us particularly, though not exclusively. “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
A number of years ago I lost my voice. I couldn’t speak above a whisper, and I was quickly headed toward becoming completely mute. I was very frightened, because, of course, my voice was my work and my work was my life. (Yes, I know how unbalanced that was, and is.) My family physician sent me to a speech pathologist to see what was wrong and to prescribe a solution. I couldn’t imagine that anything could be done, but Elizabeth helped me regain my voice, my work, and my life.
In our text, James functions as a speech pathologist whose purpose was not to help preachers regain their voice, but to help them restrain their tongue. As I indicated above, his words about the dangers of pathological speech are not limited to preachers/teachers; his words in verse 2 about “we all” and “anyone” address all kinds of Christians. But James specifically targets teachers, because so much harm and so much good can be done by the words of those who claim to be teachers. As James concludes, too often blessing and cursing, sweetness and bitterness come from the same ordained mouth.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament Epistles reveals that the early church was troubled by all sorts of “false teachers.” You find references to them in nearly every epistle. Apparently teachers were held in high esteem in those exciting and dangerous times, and many people wanted the esteem and “double honor/pay” (I Tim. 5:17) that went with the position. Some of these self-appointed teachers caused trouble because of their false message. Think of the Judaizers addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians who insisted that observance of Jewish ceremonial law was a condition of salvation.
However, some of the false teachers were trouble makers not because of their message, but because of their motivation and method. Think of Paul’s words in Philippians about teachers who “preached Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me [Paul] while I am in chains.” If the next section of James (3:13-16) is aimed at the false teachers troubling the church in James’ day, then it appears that James is talking about the kind of teachers Paul faced in Philippi. Motivated by envy, selfish ambition, party spirit, and personal animosity, they used their tongues to divide the church, as happened in Corinth. “I follow Paul, I follow Cephas, I follow Apollos….” (I Cor. 1:12).
James 3:1 will be tough to preach. I mean, a sermon aimed at teachers who divide the church can itself divide the church. Condemnation of those whose motivations are questionable can call into question your own motivation. So here is a way to approach this text. Let’s use it first of all as a mirror into which we preachers gaze intently, in order to discern if we ourselves are guilty of using our preacher tongue to damage the church. In other words, let’s allow the “living and abiding sword” to pierce our defenses and skewer our delusions and cut out our envy, selfish ambition, party spirit, and personal animosity. Such self-examination will make our sermons on this text more authentic. After all, isn’t it true that passion in preaching comes from feeling the point of the text in your own heart? If you haven’t seen yourself in the text in some way or the other, you’ll be talking down to your congregation, rather than identifying with them. That will make them defensive and they will parry the thrusts of “the living and abiding sword.”
Speaking of defensiveness, that’s probably what accounts for James’s passionate and eloquent riff on the dangers of the tongue. James can anticipate his readers saying something like this: “Sure, I know that I don’t always use my tongue as well as I should. But, come on, it’s not that big a deal. It’s just words. And you know what they say. ‘Stick and stones… but words can never hurt me.’ Besides, nobody is perfect. So give me a break. You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.” Knowing that people would resist his strong words about the danger of speech pathology, James goes into full attack mode.
In verse 2, Paul says in effect, “OK. You’re right. No one is perfect. We all sin in many ways. But that doesn’t give us a free pass on this tongue business. In fact, the tongue is so formidable a problem that if you could tame that, you’d arrive at perfection.” What Luther called “that little bit of flesh between the jaws” is in fact the hardest part of your body to control. And control it we must, because it can do a world of damage to the church and the world.
What follows in verses 3-6 is a clinic on the use of analogies. Indeed, James is full of such colorful and convicting language, which is part of the reason scholars say he has the best Greek in the New Testament. We preachers can learn a lesson from this Jewish writer who had mastered Greek to this extent. Then again, he had a good teacher, an Older Brother whose messages were filled with metaphor, simile, and story.
James pictures a powerful horse directed by a little bit and bridle (the same word as in James 1:26 where it is translated “keep a tight rein on his tongue”), a great sailing ship driven by strong winds but steered by a little rudder, and a terrifying forest fire that devours everything in its path even though it was started by a single spark. Like the bit and the rudder and the spark, the tongue is a small thing. But it can do great things, for good or ill. So, control that thing.
To drive his point home, James increases the force of his language. The tongue is a fire, a wild untamable beast. Notice that the tongue is not just like a fire or a wild beast. It is a fire and a beast, so don’t minimize its potential for harm. Verse 6 is a particularly difficult text to interpret, but it is clearly a powerful warning about the danger of the tongue. Note the escalating order of the alarm. It is a “world of evil.” It “corrupts the whole person.” It “sets the whole course of life (“wheel of nature” in other translations) on fire.” It is “itself set on fire by hell (Gehenna in the Greek).”
Commentators cannot agree on what the “wheel of nature” is, but the reference to Gehenna is particularly potent, since Gehenna was the garbage dump of Jerusalem where the fire never went out. James is saying a powerful thing. Gehenna is where the sins of the tongue come from—from the garbage dump of the universe where that serpent with forked tongue hisses out his lies to deceive, if possible, even the elect, including those preachers. James wanted to make sure that no one could dismiss his warning about the dangers of the tongue.
And he wanted to make sure that no one would think that controlling the tongue would be an easy matter. We humans have learned to tame “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea.” But no one “can tame the tongue….” That’s not exactly a motivational ending to a powerful sermon. “You must stop sinning. But you can’t. Amen.” What a downer!
But James isn’t done being down yet. He must still ponder the mystery of sin, specifically the” mystery of inconsistency.” That’s the particular sin he addresses in his epistle over and over. It is the bugaboo of all honest efforts to follow Christ faithfully. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” Yes, we do. We sing God’s praises in church, and then we curse Brother Bruce whose Escalade cuts us off as we emerge from the parking lot. We preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, and then we badmouth a neighboring preacher who has made a foolish decision in leading his church. And we barely think about the inconsistency of that.
To help us taste the wrong of that, James again resorts to metaphors: fresh water and salt water, fig trees and olives, grapevines and figs. The analogies focus on things that are impossible; it simply isn’t possible for grapevines to produce figs. It’s against the laws of nature. It ought to be that impossible for a person to use her tongue to both bless and curse; it’s against the laws of grace. But, alas, it is not impossible. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” What a mystery! What an impossible mess! “No human being can tame the tongue,” so what’s the use of even reading such a discouraging passage, let alone trying to preach on it?
What is a Christian preacher to do? Well, preach Christ, of course. James doesn’t give us much to work with on that score, except his passionate call to repentance in James 4. Humbling ourselves as completely as he commands there is a big step in the direction of redemption. Paul’s words in Romans 7 take us the rest of the way. “I do not understand what I do [or say]. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord.” As a remedy for a tongue that blesses and curses, there is “the word of faith: That if you confess with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8 and 9) This powerful attack on the sins of the tongue can become the launching pad for a passionate invitation to come to the Word made flesh, who alone can forgive our sins and tame our tongues.
We’ve just finished the high season for wildfires in the American West. At one time, there were dozens of blazes consuming thousands of acres of tinder dry vegetation. Many of the fires were started by lightning, but more than a few were human in origin, a terrible perversion of the old campfire song, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going….” But it took thousands of firefighters to put the fires out, and a few of them lost their lives in the effort. As we preach on the destructive power of the tongue, we would do well to point to these wildfires in nature as a way of reminding our tongue wagging congregations that the “harmless” fun of gossip can devastate an entire community.